I say this as someone who loves golf — there’s a reason
dumb bloviators local journalists write about the topic every couple of years.
The criticisms of government-owned and operated golf courses in 2019 are worth debating: it’s an expensive, time-consuming pursuit that takes up large areas of land that could be used for many purposes that would benefit more people.
At least, full golf courses are. But pitch and putt?
That’s another story.
Pitch and putt courses are compact. Cheap to play. Available for everyone to try without intimidation. Something that can be done in a couple of hours.
And in Metro Vancouver, we are blessed with no less than six 18-hole pitch and putt courses, all excellent places to learn how to play, keep one’s short game sharp, or just hang out with friends for a couple of years.
But to date, nobody has thought to rank these pitch and putt courses and determine which is the best.
(I think you know where this is heading)
Why are we ranking the pitch and putt courses? First of all, the people on the hate machine that determines too much of my life demanded it.
Second, Vancouver’s three pitch and putt courses (Stanley, Rupert, Queen Elizabeth) are now free for the fall and winter. They’re only maintained periodically, but if you get a stretch of a few days without rain (insert local joke here) it’s a great way to enjoy a walk in the park while occasionally whacking a piece of metal against a small ball. This ranking, theoretically, might help you in your choice of where to go.
And third, the only published review of Vancouver’s pitch and putt courses came in Vancouver Magazine in 2016, when it extolled the virtues of Stanley Park’s course and criticized Rupert Pitch and Putt.
This was a take that annoyed me greatly
even though, full disclosure, I could have responded because I wrote for the magazine at the time under a pen name — but only because Global wouldn’t let me write anywhere else, even though I was a part-time employee with few benefits asked to churn out web versions of TV stories, BUT THAT’S ANOTHER STORY, and it demands to be corrected.
So let’s correct it. Here is the ranking of Metro Vancouver’s pitch and putt courses, from worst to best.
Like any good ranking, this isn’t being done by the gut or some arbitrary system, no siree.
You see, a good time at a pitch and putt course is determined by three main factors:
1) Convenience (2 points): Is it easy to get to if you don’t live in the area? When you’re done, are there things around you can enjoy? A good day at pitch and putt is the centrepiece of an enjoyable 3-4 hours with friends and family, so non-golfing elements matter.
2) Design (5 points): How much thought was put into the entire track? Is there a variety of short/long/flat/elevated holes? Are the greens interesting? A good pitch and putt course has something for both the advanced and the beginner golfer, and doesn’t get lazy with straight forward 65-yard nothing holes just because it can.
3) Ambiance (3 points): Is it a fun course to walk? Does it blend in with its surroundings? Could you tag along, not golf and enjoy yourself?
Add it up, and each Metro Vancouver 18-hole pitch and putt course gets up to 10 points.
But which one is the worst?
6. Central Park
Central. Central Park is the worst.
Found on the southeast section of Burnaby’s very flat and very unremarkable Central Park, the pitch and putt is also very flat and unremarkable. There are no water hazards, no fascinating greens, no real elevation, and 12 of its 18 holes are between 80 and 100 holes, creating a repetitious slog that is good for working on one specific shot in your arsenal, and little else.
What is Central Park’s defining feature? Trees — they are everywhere, creating a lovely canopy of shade that can be tremendously helpful on some summer days. But they rarely factor into the strategy of a hole, and have very little variation from hole to hole.
There are a couple of places on the course that show the potential of what could be — the 11th is near the edge of the park and has a few mid-rise apartments as a backdrop, creating a neat contrast with the forest you’re in, along with one of the few trees you’re forced to shape around. And some of the greens from the 13th to 16th are pitched, causing tricky chips if you miss if off the green.
But for the most part, the best thing that can be said about Central is that it’s central to get to, and has lots of shade.
- Convenience: 1.0/2 (a 10-minute walk from a SkyTrain, a 20-minute walk from Metrotown, easy enough for anyone to get to, but not particularly close to anything on its own)
- Variety: 1.8/5 (85-yard hole with trees on all sides, flat green, no elevation. Rinse, wash, repeat)
- Ambiance: 1.8/3 (hard to complain about a nice flat walk around the trees, but would be nice if they integrated the trees into the design a bit more, or had a bit of a walk through the woods between holes)
- OVERALL: 4.6 POINTS
5. Stanley Park
For a pitch and putt course in one of the world’s greatest parks, surrounded by beaches and ponds, oceans and gardens, Stanley Park’s golf offering is a disappointment.
It’s designed pleasantly enough: gentle elevation can be found here and there, a nice variety of trees and flowers are seen in and around the property, and the 9th and 18th holes, with the stately miniature clubhouse behind, have a relaxing feel of a British links to them.
But there’s one too many super short holes where it’s hard to do more than jab a half swing towards the green, even with a short wedge. And there are a few holes where the greens are protected with some shrubbery or a slope on the side or back, but once you get on them it tends to be pretty flat.
And then there’s the inconvenient fact that in the summer the course is packed: often with bachelor or bachelorette parties filled with people who would barely have a passing knowledge of how to hit a golf ball even if they weren’t three vodka sodas in, but sometimes with families teaching their small children how to hit a golf ball for the first time.
The latter is adorable, the former, less so, but in both places, it can make for verrrry slow games, more so than any of the other pitch and putt courses.
And outside of summer, the course is often filled with a different sort of hazard: geese, often squawking, often pooping, providing an added obstacle course challenge to one’s game.
None of this is to completely disqualify the positives of 18 holes here: you’re still in Stanley Park. But while most of the park lives up to the superlatives thrown at it, the pitch and putt course is sadly generic.
- Convenience: 1.6/2 (You’re in downtown Vancouver, in one of the greatest parks in the world, and there’s a brewery a 2-minute walk away. It’s a bit of a walk to get anywhere else quickly, but these are small quibbles)
- Variety: 2.4/5 (A few holes where creativity has come into the slope of the green or the placement of the hazards, a few too many that are straight ahead with only a modicum of interesting features to the eyes)
- Ambiance: 1.7/3 (Blank out the teeming mass of people in the summer, or the boggy grounds and goose poop in the other three seasons, and breathe in the air: you can almost enjoy the classic West Coast ambiance you’re surrounded by. Almost.)
- OVERALL: 5.7 POINTS
4. Queen Elizabeth Park
Queen Elizabeth is not the prettiest course, is not the most difficult course, is not the easiest course, is not the hardest to get to, is not the easiest to get to, is not the okay we’ve beaten this rhetorical device into the ground.
But Queen E is the type of course that works for just about anyone. The wide open feel of most of the holes makes it playable for all types of golfers, but the fact it’s perched on the side of a hill means the slopes challenge better duffers to get creative (or get angry, if it’s an extremely dry summer, and a missed putt wanders 15 feet by the hole due, but that’s another story).
There’s plenty of holes which make the most of its limited geographic footprint, including the tricky 4th, where a tiny moat and a shallow green conspire for an incredibly tough 40 yards, or the uphill 12th, where a two-tiered green puts accuracy at a premium.
The only real downside of a game at Queen E is the blandness of the property: there isn’t a lot of interesting shrubbery or treelines to look at, no real views of the city or the rest of the park (unless you count a mediocre disc golf course adjacent to the 6th through 9th holes), and no real signature hole that provokes either awe or annoyance.
However, there are worse sins for a golf course. A strong variety of holes and a good central location means it’s hard to go wrong with a game here — even if you’ll be hard pressed to come up with huge highlights to the experience.
- Convenience: 1.3/2 (It’s not exactly transit accessible unless you want a decently long walk up a hill, but it’s in the middle of Vancouver, convenient enough for everyone, and a lot of great food options are close by on Main Street)
- Variety: 4.0/5 (Lots of holes with elevation, lots of holes with sloping or two-tiered greens, the short holes are interesting enough — it gets a little repetitive from the 6th to the 9th holes, some of the greens can be unfair when they get too fast, but we’re nitpicking)
- Ambiance: 1.5/3 (It’s a big open piece of land on the side of a hill, but there’s not many interesting views, no tree canopies, and it can get awfully hot in the summer.)
- OVERALL: 6.8 POINTS
Did you know West Vancouver had a pitch and putt golf course? And that it was right next to the ocean? And that it was awesome?
Because while it’s not exactly the easiest neck of the region to get to without a car, Ambleside is a gem of a pitch and putt course, short enough for everyone to delight in while having enough quirky holes to interest most golfers.
The most distinctive feature of Ambleside is probably the mounds: there are several of them, including on the 2nd and 12th holes, that make boring wedges into shots where being short can cause plenty of problems. But most holes have at least one feature that makes them interesting, whether it be a tiny green, a tee box surrounded by trees, or a pond or creek that gives the hole some texture.
So what’s holding Ambleside back? Well, the small space, for one — while the holes make the most of its space, there’s only so many ways you can trump up a 50-yard shot on a public pitch and putt budget. And while the course is pretty much right on the water, a walking trail and unfortunate tall fence mean very few holes provide outstanding views of the ocean, let alone interact with it.
But these are small inconveniences: Ambleside is a fun time and a fun excuse to get out to West Vancouver, enjoy an easy round of golf and explore the surrounding area after.
Just don’t expect to rely on rapid transit to make your way there.
- Convenience: 0.7/2 (Crossing the Lions Gate bridge is an exercise in tedium, and if you’re taking public transit it’s a 10-minute additional walk from the Park Royal area)
- Variety: 3.9/5 (A few too many holes under 55 yards, but great use of mounds and shrubbery to create lots of holes that are visually interesting while forcing some thought on what type of shot to hit)
- Ambiance: 2.3/3 (The views of Stanley Park and the ocean are supreme, even if the cramped area and unnecessary fencing don’t allow the course to fully take advantage of its location.)
- OVERALL: 6.9 POINTS
“If you want to emasculate a golfer who thinks they’re too good for pitch and putt, take them, on a wet, windy day, to Rupert, with its ponds and tiny greens atop the knolls,” wrote Chris Koentges in Vancouver Magazine in 2016, after what I can only imagine was an unfortunate incident where he focused too much on the five holes he really sucked at, instead of the joy of actually being challenged on a pitch and putt course.
Yes, Rupert has tricky holes: little 70-yard, thoughtfully designed tableaus, with all sorts of extra features you rarely see on short courses designed for the masses: turtleback greens and dramatic uphill approaches through the trees, forced carries over water and holes that are unforgiving to someone who skulls it 30 yards past the flag because they can’t control their wedge game yet.
That’s like six or seven of the holes, tricky puzzles that provide a gateway into the chess match with nerves that a full length golf course provides, holes like the 3rd and the 4th and the 18th and especially the 9th, an optical illusion where there’s much more room in the back of the green then it looks from the tee.
And then there’s the rest of them, holes that are simple enough for the beginner, where you can aimlessly bludgeon it towards the pin with little consequence a few times, preventing it from becoming too frustrating. All of this in a quiet park, far enough away from any commercial zones that it rarely gets too busy, with an interesting routing and plenty of scenery and gentle elevation on most holes to enjoy.
Yes, if your game is rusty and you pick the wrong hole for a shank, Rupert can end up being a good walk spoiled. But part of the joy of golf is that tension that something could always go awry — which is why Rupert is the best of Vancouver’s three pitch and putts.
- Convenience: 0.7/2 (There’s a sole Italian restaurant within a 15-minute walk, it’s awkward to get to by bus, but it is in Vancouver proper, making it easy for Car2Go and Evo services)
- Variety: 4.1/5 (A lot of tough tee shots with either water in front or trees on both sides, but if you’re up for the challenge the quirky holes are fun for beginners and enough of a test for anyone)
- Ambiance: 2.4/3 (Once in a while you’ll hear the din from Highway 1 next door. Otherwise there’s the oasis of any private golf course, mixed with a fun walk in nature.)
- OVERALL: 7.2 POINTS
One thing holding back most pitch and putt courses is the small piece of land they’re forced to work on, which is understandable: they exist partly to give a small-sized version of a golf game at a fraction of the cost and time of a full round. But it also means that on any course, there’s a few places where the holes get too jammed together, a few places where the designer was forced to throw together an unimaginative 60-yard bland gruel of a tee box and fairway and green, a few places where it’s clear you’re getting a second class experience.
That never happens at Kensington. Located in north Burnaby, just off the Hastings B-Line, it doesn’t get a lot of attention (because no pitch and putt course gets a lot of attention, unless they’re in middle of an internationally-known park), but provides the most pleasant pitch and putt experience available in Metro Vancouver.
And a big part has to do with how much land there is: the holes at Kensington are structured in a way where you rarely see the other holes on the course, but have wide fairways, providing a sense of isolation in nature without being too tree-dominant. And it means that while some holes are tricky, none are particularly unfair to the beginner, providing the best balance.
If there’s one complaint, it would be that the course is a wee-bit front loaded: the 1st offers a stout test up a hill, the 3rd to 6th holes scale back to to flat land in dramatic fashion, and then the rest are mostly on flat land. But they’re all well designed, all with fairways and greens that are generally in excellent condition, and provides the feel that you could be on a great parkland golf course anywhere in Canada, dropped 50 to 100 yards from the pin each time.
It’s real golf. It’s accessible golf, from beginners to experts. It’s affordable golf. And it’s the best pitch and putt golf course in Metro Vancouver.
- Convenience: 0.8/2 (It’s just a five-minute walk from a B-Line station, but unless you’re on that B-Line route to begin with it can be a bit of a slog to get to, without much in the surrounding area to enjoy after)
- Variety: 4.4/5 (None of the holes feel like they’ve been tossed together at the last second, and the wide fairways provide lots of leeway for the beginner)
- Ambiance: 2.5/3 (The plus side of being so removed from much of the city bustle is that it feels completely removed from everything, despite being just 10km from downtown.)
- OVERALL: 7.7 POINTS